observed by Diane » photo journal for those who enjoy vignettes of an ordinary life

Behind the Scenes: Photography Business

As someone who has been writing for a long time I’ve learned that few people value certain talents and services. Perhaps it’s because everyone can write (albeit not very well in many instances) that the public assumes a writer’s worth does not equate in dollars and cents. Writers struggle to get paid and paid fairly. The same obviously applies to photographers. I’ve addressed the situation before in that the digital world has made everyone a photographer (of sorts). In two of the photographer discussion lists I frequent, other photographers have been discussing a photographer’s value. It’s something that concerns me as well so thought it would be worthwhile to share the behind-the-scenes of what photographers do. Whether you’re considering becoming a photographer, someone who has hired or may hire a photographer, or someone who simply  has an interest, this behind-the-scenes peek may come as a surprise.

I’m still considered a fledgling photographer because I’ve only been doing this for pay for two years, and that’s okay with me. What isn’t entirely okay is that some people think a photographer’s rates are out of line. On many of the photo shoots I have been doing I don’t make a profit or the profit doesn’t amount to enough for me to buy a nice lunch somewhere. I guess you could say I’m paying my dues (though my rates will definitely increase in 2010). Now that’s out of the way, let’s open that mysterious door to learn what a photographer does behind the scenes.

  • Before beginning a photography business, a lot of training and expertise (whether formally trained or self taught) is necessary.
  • Doing research regarding running a business including investigating the local market.
  • Purchasing equipment that can easily cost up to $10,000 simply to start; for some photographers it’s as much as $30,000.
  • At least one computer with large memory capacity plus multiple external hard drives. (Another significant investment)
  • For studio photographers there is a huge cost outlay for lease space plus upkeep.
  • For on-location photographers, a well maintained vehicle is a must.
  • Office expenses, business licence, insurance, phone, internet fees, etc. (we still haven’t started any photo sessions …)
  • Cost of designer to create logo and/or other branding materials.
  • Advertising and marketing costs plus the time to plan and prepare all the materials (business cards, postcards, gift certificates, referral cards, brochures, and so on), press releases, and other related tasks.
  • A professional photography-focused website to park a portfolio & information regarding the business (if using a designer it can range from $5-15,000; if purchasing a customizable template to create their own website the costs are $250-450 plus annual fees for web hosting and purchase of domain name).
  • Optional: a blog (photo journal) for keeping clients, friends, and other photographers abreast of current work, photos, news, and relevant information (although blogs are free, templates such as this one cost a few hundred dollars to purchase).
  • So now the photographer has their first client.
  • Time is spent responding to questions, sometimes consulting, and sending off printed material either by email or post.
  • Once a date is agreed upon, a deposit is required to hold the date. A file is started, calendar is updated.
  • Follow up with client prior to session date, partly as a reminder but also to answer any additional questions they may have. Prepare paperwork for day of session (standard model release, contract, receipt for final payment of session, business cards, etc.
  • For on-location photographers doing outdoor sessions, follow the weather forecasts (in the event an alternative indoor location is required).
  • Charge camera batteries, ensure there are sufficient formatted memory cards for the session, be certain the vehicle is fueled up, and go over checklist (for everything needed to take to the photo session).
  • Day of session, pack up gear and paperwork, then drive to location. (In my case, I travel no less than one hour one-way to do photo sessions; often further.)
  • Take care of paperwork, get acquainted, and use those photography skills to capture as many special moments as possible for the client. This dedicated one-on-one creative session takes 1 1/2 to 2 hours on average, though some can take longer.
  • Drive back to home office. (Again, in my case this is a minimum one hour drive one-way; often further.)
  • Download all images to photo software on computer and back up files (this takes approximately 30-45 minutes, or more if it was an event).
  • Review all images to begin sorting the wheat from the chaff (this is round one).
  • Return to photos and begin to get ruthless with eliminating images that don’t meet the mark for whatever reason. This can take at least an hour, depending on how ruthless a photographer may be in this process. I spend more time with this process since I’m keeping the client in mind and what I feel/hope they are specifically wanting or expecting as I work through every individual image.
  • Upload a few sneak peek images to the photo journal (blog) and email client so s/he can have a peek at a couple samples from the shoot.
  • In between other sessions, marketing, bookkeeping, other paperwork, phone calls, emails, etc. begin the editing and processing of images. More images may be eliminated during this process as well but primarily time is spent on every single image, enlarging it on screen and checking on details. Some photos may require some colour correction or other minor edits, and others may be run through the digital darkroom to try out a few conversions to black & white, sepia, vintage, or other artistic techniques. This is all done for providing a variety of proofs for the client to view so they may make selections for purchasing prints or other products. This step takes hours and varies with every photo session (and much longer for sessions that include a group). Every session is unique, every client is unique, so the photographer attempts to provide products that will please the client.
  • Once the hours of editing and processing are complete, it’s time to upload all the digital proofs to the website for the client to view. Uploading proofs is time consuming dependent upon how many proofs are presented (say 30 minutes or more).
  • While at the website it is also necessary to create the custom client area (for each client) and settings which can take about 15 minutes or so, depending upon how a website is set up.
  • Contact the client to advise that the proofs are online for their viewing plus provide instructions, ordering details, etc. and answer any questions that may arise.
  • Now the waiting begins, anticipating the client will not only be delighted with the visual keepsakes you’ve created but that they will place an order.
  • Once an order is placed, payment is received and processed. Then the photographer prepares the selected images for submitting to the professional photo lab (not a local drug store or one-hour service). Depending upon the items ordered and the number of different items, preparing and submitting the images to the professional lab can easily take another hour.
  • When the photographer receives the fulfilled order, the photographer must take time to check the prints & other products against the client’s order to ensure all the items are correct, and as originally placed.
  • The photographer then prepares and packages the order (the packaging is yet another cost to the photographer). For items that are mailed to the client, the package must be then prepared for mailing by post by being placed in the appropriate photo packaging mailers (two more expenses: postage + shipping packaging). These 2 steps take up to an hour.
  • The photographer then either mails the package to the client or delivers (more cost and time) it personally.
  • I took the time to calculate and I spend 15 1/4 hours on one photo session (yes, just one). That’s $4.92 per hour and no reimbursement for my gas (and I throw in a complimentary 8 x 10 on top of that so now you can deduct a couple hours pay as well).
  • The photographer provides this level of quality and service because they are professional at what they do (and maybe half crazy too) 🙂
  • So, how much is all that worth in terms of dollars and cents?

At the top of this photo journal in the dark grey menu bar I have a tab titled, “Check These Out” and the second item listed alphabetically is “Consumer’s Guide to Custom Photography” or “Why are Professional Photographers So Expensive?” I recommend reading either of those articles as part two of my harangue. Coming from someone other than me, may ease the news a wee bit or at least back me up 😉

I hope you aren’t too exhausted after peeking behind this door. Feel free to drop a tip in the donation jar on the other side of the door and thanks so much for your kind attention. 🙂

Copyright © Diane M. Schuller. All Rights Reserved. Do not copy or use without permission. Feel free to link to this post if you’d like to share the information.

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Jennifer - August 14, 2009 - 8:48 pm

Awesome post Diane! Very informative and well written! Thank you so much!

Roberta - August 15, 2009 - 8:59 am

Excellent post Diana!

Gayle - August 15, 2009 - 9:14 am

This is a really good behind the scenes look.

Marcie - August 15, 2009 - 11:18 am

It sounds so daunting when you break it down like this. But – then again – if you love what you do….and do what you love – it’s gotta be worthwhile!!!

Esther - August 17, 2009 - 1:05 am

Thank you Diane! A most helpful and nicely written post!

Toni - August 17, 2009 - 1:56 am

Excellent post, Diane.

romine - August 17, 2009 - 2:49 am

educative as always. thank you Diane!

Heather Mencer - September 17, 2010 - 3:43 pm

Thank you AGAIN for writing this article. I have many people ask me about getting into the photography industry. I will point them to your blog!